Part 1: Human Rights Fundamentals

The United Nations and Human Rights

The United Nations Charter sets forth the "inherent dignity" and the "equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family." Upholding these human rights principles as "the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world" is fundamental to every undertaking of the United Nations.


The UN General Assembly

The United Nations currently comprises 185 member states, all of which belong to the General Assembly. The General Assembly controls the UN’s finances, makes non-binding recommendations, and oversees and elects members of other UN organs. It is the General Assembly that ultimately votes to adopt human rights declarations and conventions, which are also called treaties or covenants. For example, in 1948 when the UN Commission on Human Rights had completed its draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the General Assembly voted to adopt the document.


Other UN Bodies

In addition to the General Assembly, in which all member states are represented, there are five other main bodies of the United Nations that deal with different types of international concerns and administrative tasks.

Although human rights are fundamental to all functions of the UN, human rights issues mainly fall under the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). This council of fifty-four members elected by the General Assembly is responsible for coordinating all economic and social work of the UN and its affiliated institutions.

The Economic and Social Council oversees the work of many intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and certain UN commissions, such as the UN Commission on Human Rights.


The UN Commission on Human Rights

Made up of fifty-three member states elected by ECOSOC the UN Commission on Human Rights initiates studies and fact-finding missions and discusses specific human rights issues. It has responsibility for initiating and drafting human rights declarations and conventions.

ECOSOC also supervises intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), which are specialized agencies that function independently with their own charter, budget, and staff but are affiliated with the UN by special agreements. IGOs report to the ECOSOC and may be asked to review reports from certain UN bodies that are relevant to their area of focus.

Some intergovernmental organizations that work to protect human rights include:

    International Labor Organization (ILO) – Develops international labor standards and provides technical assistance training to governments.

    United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – Works with other UN bodies, governments, and nongovernmental organizations to provide community-based services in primary healthcare, basic education, and safe water and sanitation for children in developing countries. Human rights are fundamental to its programming.

    United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) – Promotes economic and political empowerment of women in developing countries, working to ensure their participation in development planning and practices, as well as their human rights.

    United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – Pursues intellectual cooperation in education, science, culture, and communications and promotes development through social, cultural, and economic projects.

    World Health Organization (WHO) – Conducts immunization campaigns, promotes and coordinates research, and provides technical assistance to countries that are improving their health systems.


Other UN Bodies and Human Rights

The UN Security Council, comprising fifteen member states, is responsible for making decisions regarding international peace and security. It can make recommendations and decisions for action, including providing humanitarian aid, imposing economic sanctions, and recommending peacekeeping operations. The Security Council has been responsible for establishing international tribunals to prosecute serious violations of humanitarian law. For example, special tribunals have been set up to prosecute war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and acts of genocide in Rwanda.

The Secretariat is the administrative arm of the UN, responsible for overseeing the programs and policies established by the other UN organs. The position of UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, currently held by Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, is part of the UN Secretariat.

Sources: "The United Nations at a Glance," UNA-USA Factsheet; Frank Newman and David Weissbrodt, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process: 9-12.


When you expand the civil rights struggle to the level of human rights, you can take the case of the Black man in this country before the nations of the United Nations. You can take it before the General Assembly. You can take Uncle Sam before the World Court. But the only level you can do it on is the level of human rights. Human rights are something that you are born with. Human rights are your God-given rights. Human rights are the rights recognized by all the nations of this earth.

Malcom X
Speech in Cleveland, Ohio
April 3, 1964



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